This week’s decision by Jaguar to chose Formula E for its global return to motor racing is probably the most significant development in the series’ long-term viability.
Jaguar is arguably the biggest brand in motoring without a current motorsport programme, so the fact that it has chosen to get involved in an all-electric single-seater championship rather than play on its heritage and return to sportscars or touring cars, speaks volumes about how Formula E has managed to create an environment that is seen as credible and relevant by manufacturers.
The ‘Paris Outcome’ agreement on climate change that followed the UN’s COP21 summit last weekend, was the first time that a global accord had been reached on the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Following on from the scandal that continues to engulf the Volkswagen group over the cheats that were built into certain models of its cars in order for them to pass emissions test, the showcasing of electric cars has never seemed more prescient.
Jaguar has made it very clear that it has chosen Formula E as a precursor to a new range of electric cars it has in the pipeline. When I was young, Jaguars had twin tailpipes (with smoke usually coming out of one), fuel filler caps on both rear wings, V12, 5.3-litre engines and ran on 5-star (what a gorgeous smell that made, enormously toxic, but fragrant nonetheless).
It entered XJ12s and XJ-Ss in European Touring Car races and at Bathurst and gorgeous long-tail cars at Le Mans that made me think that Silk Cut were cool (until I tried one and realised they tasted like the fumes from a freshly creasoted fence). One of my first jobs was working on the Jaguar Racing website, and while the Formula 1 team never went anywhere near as good as it looked in its metallic green paint job, the scale of the support it received enormous. If only a fraction of these start to follow Formula E as a result, the championship’s fan base is set to explode.
To die-hard motorsport fans, Formula E has been Marmite. As Formula 1 has found with its small-capacity turbo hybrid engines (a technological masterpiece, by the way), some fans want their motorsport LOUD. And that’s something the Formula E cars will never deliver. Electric cars are all about efficiency and noise is wasted energy, so making them sound like anything other than an overgrown radio-controlled car is never going to happen.
Then there is the mid-race car swap, which demonstrates the limitations of current electric car battery technology in stark fashion. Perhaps it would have been more sensible to have two short races run back-to-back, but in order to create an hour-long TV show, the car swap was introduced. While initially the amount of time taken for the driver to unbelt, hop over to the second car and for the team to strap him in, was distracting, it doesn’t bother me now. Having a 45-minute race is more satisfying than a 20-minute sprint, mainly because it opens up the possibility of employing strategy rather than it just being a flat-out blast.
Most controversial is Fan Boost, which rewards the drivers with the most votes from the fans with an additional hike in power. It’s a sporting anathema. That popularity can transcend skill is not what traditional sport is about. If this principle was applied in football, then we’d never have a situation like that in the Premier League at the moment, where unfancied Leicester are flying high, while Chelsea, who’ve spent millions building a global fan base, languish near the relegation zone. To me, that’s what makes sport brilliant. The underdog slaying the super-rich behemoth. If Manchester United fans were able to vote for their team to have a temporary man advantage, or a slightly bigger goal, I would stop watching football immediately. Or at least retreat to the non-league games where this couldn’t be implemented.
But Formula E knows this and doesn’t care. There are literally dozens of racing series where the action is ‘pure’. If you were to believe the comments left by Formula 1 fans on various forums, what they want is a formula with more overtaking, that’s about driving skill, where there’s no dominant manufacturer and no DRS, well up until this year, they had all of that in GP2. It was even on the F1 bill, conveniently placed right after qualifying and just before the race. Yet despite having the best drivers of tomorrow behind the wheel and some genuinely amazing races (before this year’s misguided introduction of DRS), more often than not, these played out in front of empty grandstands (and tiny TV audiences).
In order to appeal to a new type of fan, Formula E had to do something different. Since the advent of Big Brother and the X Factor, people have become accustomed to having a say in the outcome of the shows they are watching. Taking this and deploying it in sport is a very risky move, but Formula E was switched on enough to realise it had to do something to try to appeal to younger fans (the average F1 fan is in his 50s and is getting older). If the price of engaging with a younger, less male, audience is giving them a degree of influence in the outcome, perhaps it’s a price worth paying.
Jaguar certainly thinks so. Its decision to herald its move into the manufacture of electric cars via a motorsport programme is a game changer. As a performance brand this is an overt acknowledgement that the perception of electric cars is changing: that they are no longer being seen as worthy and sensible, but exciting and desirable.
If Jaguar is able to successfully convey this message via Formula E, how long will it be before its market place rivals – BMW, Audi and Mercedes – follow suit? If all of those brands entered teams in Formula E, the future for the series would look very bright indeed.
Notes to editors:
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 15 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.